What do ASIO’s adverse security assessments of refugees actually mean?

There has been some progress towards achieving due process for Australia’s “legal black hole” refugees. These are 60-odd people who the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has certified as genuine refugees, but then kept detained because ASIO gave them adverse security assessments.

The independent reviewer, retired Federal Court Judge Margaret Stone, has ensured they can now receive ASIO’s reasons for judging them a security risk. However, human rights advocates have pointed out the limitations of Stone’s role, and that it’s doubtful “the independent reviewer process will give refugees enough to be able to defend themselves effectively.”

A bigger question is why should an adverse assessment result in indefinite detention at all?

Given that ASIO’s adverse security assessment are being posited by the government as so serious as justify their current treatment, it’s worth reflecting on what an adverse assessment actually means.


At a talk in February 2012, Director-General of ASIO David Irvine used the following words to describe adverse assessments for visa applications:

“ASIO has, over the years, developed very careful processes that enable us to eventually make a predictive judgement as to whether this person might be a potential security risk to Australia, and the security here being defined in terms of section 4 of the ASIO Act. Someone who might be coming to Australia to conduct espionage, someone who might be coming to Australia to conduct an act of sabotage, someone who might be coming to Australia to conduct an act of terrorism, and so on.” [after 1:35:00, emphasis added]

Australia is detaining people indefinitely based on a predictive judgement that they might pose a security risk.

The type of risk does not necessarily involve direct danger to Australia. The available information (which is limited, but fortunately more is coming out) suggests that the adverse assessments are based on less immediate security concerns.

Most of the people detained are Sri Lankan Tamils suspected of involvement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elaam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers). A recent High Court case, Plaintiff M47/2012 v. Director-General of Security & Ors, allowed insight into the issues at stake in one adverse assessment, which revolved around the refugee’s alleged support for LTTE violence in Sri Lanka, not any threat of violence in Australia.

Involvement with the LTTE (or its subsequent incarnations) is a legitimate security concern, as Australia has an international obligation to prevent its territory being used as a base for violence against other countries. And sometimes support networks for external insurgencies can become threats to their host country. But there is a huge difference between a security concern and something that necessitates detention.

Some of the adverse assessments are not LTTE-related and likely have nothing to do with violence, such as one teenage Kuwaiti refugee reportedly deemed a security risk because his father was involved in people-smuggling.

So the detained refugees are hardly people suspected of planning to shoot up a shopping centre if released.

This is a weak basis for indefinite detention, and ASIO itself has not stated (at least publicly) that this treatment is required. The government, not ASIO, makes the decision to detain them, and in the February 2012 talk David Irvine said:

“ASIO does not have a view, and certainly not a public view, on whether people who receive adverse assessments generically should be held in detention or not. There are other ways, and other solutions, to that problem, and is up to the government to examine all the possibilities and make its decision.”

Yet most of our elected leaders see these security assessments as justifying the current system, which involves locking people up for potentially the rest of their lives. This is no exaggeration, as one adversely-assessed refugee has committed suicide and several more have attempted to.


This is why it is important to be aware of what an adverse security assessment from ASIO actually means.

These are not people proven to be dangerous, like paroled criminals. Indefinite detention is already at odds with liberal democratic norms, but in this case it’s worse because the detention is based simply on predictive judgements that someone might pose a risk.

Australia does not indefinitely detain convicted terrorists who planned acts of violence in Melbourne and Sydney.  It makes no sense to indefinitely detain people because of vaguer and less immediate security risks, and is not necessary.

It is difficult to find a single security expert who supports the government’s current approach, and several have expressed various forms of opposition to it. A report by the Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Immigration Detention Network also contains examples of expert opposition.

Our security agencies have extensive resources and powers to address the various risks these individuals may pose. Many conditions can be placed on released refugees to ensure this, including restrictive measures such as electronic tagging if in some cases there does turn out to be evidence of direct danger to Australia.

There are already many laws in place to allow this, and if neccesary new laws can be passed. As a Canberra Times editorial pointed out, “the legal and administrative mind is capable of devising any number of variations of supervised or monitored freedom, parole and conditional rights of residence in ways which secure all of the relevant interests.”

In short, the assumption that the ASIO assessments show that these refugees pose a danger that requires the current regime of indefinite detention is baseless. This is no knee-jerk critique; I have often defended ASIO and supported some of its most controversial powers. But its adverse security assessments do not justify the horror of indefinite detention.


Update 1:

The human rights volunteer organisation Right Now has kindly published a version of this post, with some edits.

10 thoughts on “What do ASIO’s adverse security assessments of refugees actually mean?

  1. Pingback: ASIO and DIAC and indefinite detention | Love versus Goliath : A Partner Visa Journey

  2. Personally I think the reason that no politician shows any leadership on this issue is that they do not want to be on the wrong side of the issue IF it turns out that one of those who has an adverse ASIO check actually commits a terrorist or major criminal act. That politician will be remembered as the one who enabled that attack to happen, destroying any legacy or future ambitions that person had.

    • Don’t be ridiculous. The only terrorism in Australia is committed by ASIO and the government of the day. The Kuwaiiti child being denied because his father might have done something is simply illegal, what our the frigging worthless courts thinking to allow such a racist attack on anyone.

      And ASIO should not be involved in any way in normal refugee claims, there are already real grounds for exclusion and considering there are no people smugglers what are they thinking?

      And jailing babies and women is really, really pointless.

      I don’t know why anyone would support ASIO though, they have never done one substantial thing.

      • I am going to say you missed the point of my comment. Like Andrew says below the domestic political consequences of appearing ‘soft’ of border security/terrorism/crime is disastrous and hence why this issue gets no political leadership for change.

        If I recall correctly ASIO security assessments are one of the last checks done before refugees are released to the public. It comes after the person is deemed to be a refugee, that why the person can not be deported back to their home country and after a negative security assessment no other country is likely to want them either, hence the indefinite detention. ASIO has no role in saying if the person is a refugee or not, they only look at potential security threats.

        As for your claim about ASIO committing terrorist acts, that is a rather silly thing to say. There is no evidence to support that claim, it would go against ASIOs goals and objectives, and it would cause an international & domestic incidents that would have far reaching implications. While I acknowledge that a ‘State Terror’ exists and some states use it, Australia is not currently one of them.

        And finally I agree with both you and Andrew that locking people up indefinitely is not moral or ethical, especially children. It does not seem right that a democratic country should resort to this, but like my original post said no politician will touch this issue as it can make them seem weak on border security. It is because of this that we now have a ‘race to the bottom’ mentality with this issue, with both major political parties basically supporting this idea and the political rhetoric such as ‘Stop the boats’ ‘Tow them back’ etc that now dominate this political debate.

    • Hello Kiwi,

      Agreed, I think that’s a big factor behind the lack of political leadership on this issue. For politicians, the electoral consequences of doing anything perceived as “soft” on security are potentially disastrous. There are no electoral disincentives to acting “tough”, particularly against asylum seekers, even if it results in misguided and harmful policies.

    • The statement that “……judgement that they might pose a security risk.” displays light thinking by Mr Zammit.
      The risk analysis is already inclusive of “might”. If ASIO deems there Is a risk (be that small or big), then what the refugees “might” do is something else again.

  3. Bullshit, what threat are you talking about? Have you seen Ranjini? She’s the one who was assessed by ASIO as a threat. That woman bear in mind delivered a baby boy in January 2013 in Villawood detention centre. Think again, and sometimes switch your logic on.

  4. ASIO assessment in relation to Tamils is nothing to with Australia’s national security.

    Tamils or Tamil Tigers never displayed or carried any actions against the western nations and our values. They are in fact pro-west. ASIO negative assessments are a silly act of pleasing a “friendly” fellow country – in this case Sri Lanka’s current regime, a regime well known for massive war crimes and crimes against humanity as per the recent UNHRC resolution.

    Shame on you ASIO

  5. ASIO is an administrative body which finds itself in the position of largely unsupervised judicial and executive power. A wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs for those who believe in separation of powers and the rule of law. In short, the government has vacated its legal and policy role in this matter

  6. Pingback: Champions of Change: Australia’s Hysteria | you said it...

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